Of The Purple Mage
Idle generic reflections on character by Robert Hood
day sits outside the window like a neglected spaniel.
I scowl at it. I turn back to my desk, but the spaniel
doesn't go away. I can hear it whimpering.
live solitary lives.
in the case before me, I wonder, does the truth lie?
Creating the characters that are an essential part of
the mechanics of a story is a matter of projection,
of empathic connection with a verbal construct. But
the constructive process itself is an individual thing,
using building blocks taken from a life that stretches
into the past and lying all around me in the present.
genre writing - and I would argue that most, if not
all, fiction writing is genre writing, with its own
expectations and ambience - stock characters that fit
into stock situations and represent stock attitudes
are available to the writer. These can be drawn upon.
Perhaps must be drawn upon. They provide a framework
for the creative act, and as such are as much a tool
as the words used to re-create them for the reader.
genre writing offers such pre-set structures or tropes
is a useful thing to know. As writers we must be familiar
with them. They help overcome the basic alienation that
exists between a writer and a reader by offering a mutually
accepted framework. But that's not the end of it.
within a genre story, say a tale of crime, that never
make it beyond the pre-existing structures can offer
a certain comfort if the rest of the tale is threateningly
original. But generally they just come over as tired,
predictable and unconvincing. In short, merely as stock
characters and cliches. There's no creative energy.
We've all met the disheveled cop who recites Wordsworth
at moments of stress. Or the scrawny wisecracking informant.
Or the femme fatale whose only motivation seems to be
to lead the world-weary PI further into a web of teasing
were all original once. They worked, as characters,
in a context that was as much a part of their character
as their crumpled trenchcoat or alabaster skin. It was
their success in that context that turned them into
genre elements. Success put them up for grabs by subsequent
writers. But the trick now is to mould each old character
into a dynamic that fits the new context. To make them
live. To convince the reader of their inner reality.
That's the hard bit.
where the job becomes dangerous.
the dungeon laboratory, I feel the hair on the back
of my neck twitch. Unfamiliar objects litter the shelves
around the room's dank walls. From somewhere beyond
cold stone I hear the thud of a dying heartbeat.
perhaps it is a heartbeat on the verge of life.
is the 'hero' (as in protagonist, or point-of-view character)?
The young military officer who has stumbled upon this
lair of obscene creation? The mad scientist intent on
foisting his own insane vision upon an unsuspecting
world? The blonde niece, held prisoner somewhere in
the ruins? The evil creation whose very life-breath
is a moral outrage to the community into which he has
been unwittingly born?
all cliches (thanks to the success of Frankenstein and
the innumerable mad scientist stories that it spawned),
but whether any of them (not just the monster) come
to new life will depend on the author's ability to take
the reader somewhere new through them.
regarding perspective will affect the reader's response
to these characters as genre elements. Do we sympathise?
Do we understand (as distinct from approve of) their
motivations? Do we feel that these particular events
happen because of these characters and could have arisen
under the auspices of no others?
reader has to be convinced that the characters are more
than tagged-on plot decorations. They have to have an
inner reality, a presence that suggests they are an
essential part of the story, while existing apart from
it. Just like people in real life. This is despite the
fact that in many genre stories the central interest
lies with the plot rather than the characters that play
it out. The two aren't separable in fact. Even in a
short story where no extensive character detail is given,
the characters need to suggest a longer timeframe than
the immediate timeframe in which the plot functions.
They are not in themselves stock genre elements, though
for a moment their reality coincides with the genre
needs of the story.
what it must seem like anyway.
reader must see the genre structure through their eyes,
not as an artificial, pre-existing construct.
The coffee shop's empty of customers, except for myself
and one other. Busyness seems to infuse it anyway. A
caffeine ambience. It saturates the few words spoken.
"Latte please." "Nice day, isn't it?" "I'll try the
blueberry muffin." Meaningless, utilitarian words. No
take in the details of the other person over my flat
white. Young, with a haggard weariness about her eyes
and shoulders. She looks like she didn't come to this
place freely but was beached here. Her ear-rings are
plentiful but plain. She has a scar along the side of
devil's in the detail.
beyond the cliche, are made up of details. A cliche
is single-facetted, described in generalised words that
are given, not owned. Or in no words. They are merely
the cliche and nothing more. They connect with nothing
in their environment. The Dark Man. The Abused Woman.
Tall. Handsome. Blonde…
a well-chosen detail can make a stock character live.
leaving his first mate to decelerate their cargo freighter
out of hyperdrive, the Master Hunter did a quick inventory
of creatures he'd snatched from planets across the galaxy.
Most of them were oddly humanoid or reminiscent of terran
lifeforms. They partook of familiar, if somewhat warped,
is not surprising, of course. In order to give alien
characters an air of reality - a personality that the
reader can recognise - writers tend to think in the
pre-existing structures that are the building blocks
of the familiar world. Change them about, sure. Take
characteristics from here and there, splice them together,
mould, clone, mix and genetically engineer, and you
end up with something that gives a feeling of alienness
but which can also be comprehended and to which the
reader can relate. Stick a woman's head on a snake's
body. Multiply appendages. Turn the skin green. Make
the eyes dangle on stalks. Whatever. At least the reader
can recognise it.
SF writers try to create genuinely alien creatures (and
even this is relative), such characters threaten never
to come alive. Where they do, such creation has to be
the central interest of the story - and must, of course,
be offset by more recognisably human characters or the
writer risks so alienating the reader from the story
that no imaginative engagement takes place.
a pretty tough game. Yet in a way, no tougher than any
act of character creation. After all, what is a character
in a work of fiction?
the aliens I referred to above, every character is an
amalgamation of elements taken from here and there -
from the writer's memory, people he or she has met,
characters from books - and then combined, twisted together,
extrapolated to form something new. A quality of perception.
Scraps of physical appearance. The way they laugh. Their
aggressive or placating manner. Motivation. Idiosyncrasies
of speech. Whatever.
always do the Divine-Creator bit, but it is a Frankenstein
form of creation: it doesn't take place from scratch
but by the re-combination and re-vivification of pre-existing
elements. The resulting chimera may live or may be abortive.
determining factor is the writer's ability to give cohesion
to the mixture, to ensure that the disparate elements
make sense together and in each particular story context.
The imaginative power of the Word.
Purple Mage surveyed the stark, convoluted terrain with
an otherworldly intensity. Vast, strange creatures moved
in the forests and lakes, and beyond, where the mountains
gave way to a turbulent expanse of ocean, the crowded
bustle of the state's largest port provided evidence
that civilisation had found a foothold even into this
wild landscape. Now this world, for good or ill, was
on the brink of disaster. The Mage knew it and the knowledge
tired him. He had seen it so many times before. Would
he have the strength to stop the coming apocalypse?
They usually do, such mystical heroes.
whether or not the reader cares enough to follow the
struggle will depend on the strength of the characterisation,
of the protagonists, of the land's inhabitants, of the
land itself, of the many plot elements that go into
the construction of the story.
the reader believe that, within the context created,
this land, this city, this Mage, this monster have a
reality that makes sense and is both connected to and
independent from the plot being forged?
enough idiosyncratic detail provided?
the character transcend the moment? Like lands, cities,
worlds and monsters in fantasy stories, characters in
all genres must have backgrounds, histories that are
more-or-less developed in the story (depending upon
its nature and length). This helps give the reader a
literary sense that the characters have a reality that
extends beyond the bare requirements of the genre.
the extent that this is true, fictionalising 'real'
or historical figures gives a psychological advantage.
However, in the end, whether it's Napoleon, struggling
artist as a young woman, hardboiled gumshoe or hobbit,
it doesn't matter. The writer's task is the same: to
take the bare bones, the genre pattern, the historical
knowledge, the cliché - and to give it a lively and
individual interpretation that readers can relate to
and take into themselves.
a daunting task.
the Purple Mage.